26 October 2020

A saint’s icon from Crete
brings my mind back to
a church in Thessaloniki

Saint Dimitrios of Thessaloniki … a new icon by Alexandra Kaouki of Rethymnon

Patrick Comerford

I was posting preaching and liturgical resources this morning on another forum for next Sunday, which is All Saints’ Day (1November 2020), and later in the day was working on my Sunday sermon. As I thought about the saints that have been influential in my own spiritual growth and life, I was reminded that today in Greece is the feast day of Saint Dimitrios of Thessaloniki (Άγιος Δημήτριος της Θεσσαλονίκης), one of the most popular saints and martyrs in the Greek Orthodox Church.

I was reminded of the popularity of Saint Dimitrios throughout Greece this morning by a new icon of the saint by my friend Alexandra Kaouki, the icon-writer with a studio in Rethymnon in Crete.

I have missed a number of planned visits to Greece this year because of the pandemic lockdown. But seeing her icon this morning brought me back not only to her studio below the Fortezza in Rethymnon but also to my many recent visits to Thessaloniki. The most famous church in the city is the Church of Aghios Dimitrios, named after the martyred Roman soldier who is the city’s patron saint and whose feast day is today (26 October).

The church was first built as a small oratory shortly after the year 313 on the ruins of a Roman bath and on the site of the saint’s martyrdom ten years earlier on the orders of the Emperor Galerius.

A new church was built on the same site in the fifth century. This was a large, three-aisled basilica, but was burnt down in 634. Soon after, the present five-aisled basilica was built on the site, and it remains the largest church in Greece.

The Church of Aghios Dimitrios often serves as the de facto cathedral of Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Byzantine sources record that the city’s patron, Saint Demetrios, was also venerated in the Church of the Panagia Acheiropoietos (Παναγία Ἀχειροποίητος) is a fifth-century Byzantine church in the city centre, at Aghias Sofias Street, opposite Makedonomachon square, a short distance to the north of Egnatia Street.

The Church of Aghios Dimitrios became a mosque in 1493, but it was restored to Christian worship in 1912. It was destroyed by fire again in 1917, but restoration work began immediately after the catastrophe of 1917.

Very few fragments of sculptures, mosaics or frescoes survived the fire of 1917, but those that have survived are representative of the successive phases of the church’s history.

Items that survived the 1917 fire and others that came to light during recent excavations include:

● The fountain of the holy water and holy oil associated with the cult of Saint Dimitrios.
● Architectural sculptures, including columns and parapets, from the first architectural phase of the church in the fifth century.
● Corinthian-style capitals from the first architectural phase of the church.
● Two small fifth century pillars from the sanctuary.
● The restored ambo (pulpit) of the church; it dates from the sixth century, and in the seventh century was placed in the wall where it is now exhibited.
● Fragments of middle Byzantine sarcophagi.
● Fragments of icons of the Virgin Mary from the 11th and 12th century relief decoration of the church.
● Fragments of a 13th century ciborium.
● Decorative fragments from a 14th century burial monument.
● A mosaic votive inscription from the decoration of the church destroyed by the 1917 fire.

Today, the church often functions as the de facto cathedral of Thessaloniki.

The crypt under the sanctuary and the transept is said to be the place where the saint was martyred, and has been an archaeological site since it was discovered in 1918.

The remains of Saint Dimitrios were returned from Italy in 1980 and are part of the exhibition open to the public, with items that survived the 1917 fire and others that came to light during recent excavations:

Inside the Church of Saint Dimitrios … rebuilt after the catastrophic fire in 1917 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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